François-Marie Arouet was born in 1694 in Paris, France, and died 83 years later in the same city. In those 83 eventful years François-Marie argued with his father, fell in love – once with a French-Protestant refugee, once with a married French noblewoman, and once with his own niece – and was jailed several times.
He was alternately favoured by King Frederick The Great, and also punished by him. He was exiled to Britain and wrote extensively about that country’s relative freedom of speech and religion, as well as its constitutional monarchy.
When he died his body was buried in secret, and then exhumed 13 years later to lead a parade which attracted over one million people as a forerunner to the French Revolution.
This great philosopher Francois-Marie Arouet, also changed his name, and is popularly known by his adopted name, Voltaire.
Voltaire was prolific, writing about religious freedom, free trade, civil liberties, social reform. He also wrote about the subject of work, upon which he said, “Work saves us from three great evils: boredom, vice and need.”
These words were ringing in my head after watching the Wallabies edge out the All Blacks last Saturday. They also gave me hope for the return clash at Eden Park – enormous task though it is.
It hardly needs explaining, but the single main ingredient in the Wallabies’ win was as simple as it was beautiful: work. And not just average hard yakka, but gut-busting, soul-wrenching, Sisyphean work.
Hard work highlights the character of people. Some turn up their sleeves, some turn up their noses, and some don’t turn up at all.
During this Test, Michael Cheika’s Wallabies turned up their sleeves and the crowd loved them for it.
During Sekope Kepu’s baffling early sin-binning, a seven-man scrum shoved rudely through the All Black pack. When Nick Phipps threw a wayward pass, Matt Giteau did the dirty one percenter and got back to clean it up. When Julian Savea looked certain to score on the stroke of halftime, Michael Hooper steadied himself and took the hard work option of actually putting Savea into touch.
The crowd roared at each one of these moments – they knew that they were watching a side newly dedicated to doing the hard yards.
It has often been said by observers of Australian and New Zealand rugby that the difference between Wallabies and All Blacks is that Wallabies simply want to become Wallabies, while All Blacks want to become great All Blacks.
The implication is that Australian players have done their work once they have their first cap, whereas New Zealand players continue to work right through their careers.
Clearly there are too many variables in winning Test matches to be so simplistic, but the clear history of All Black superiority is difficult to ignore. Indeed, the recently developed New Zealand Rugby Union value ‘Better people make better All Blacks’ is a clear nod to off-field qualities.
For the Wallabies, this might be better phrased ‘Harder work makes better Wallabies’. Whenever the Wallabies have been poor, they have always seemed to have more than their fair share of Voltaire’s hated qualities – boredom, vice and need.
Of course, individual commitment to a group effort is what makes teams, companies, societies and civilisations function, but the commitment is a mere mental flick of a switch. The resulting power comes from an outward behaviour, which is physical work.
If we were looking for evidence of this physical work after the first Bledisloe Test, it was writ large on the faces of several players. Hooper, David Pocock and Israel Folau were bleeding openly.
But it wasn’t just the Wallabies. Their opponents, who often come through relatively unscathed, were also bruised and busted.
Several people that I ran into at the stadium said with satisfaction, “Now that was a Test match”, with clear reference to the bruising physicality of it all. That was no surprise. Test rugby is incredibly hard, physically draining work. Winning Test rugby is even harder.
The difference between winning and losing is doing the work of getting to your feet and getting back in the defensive line a half-second faster. It is doing the work of the kick chase, or the cover tackle, or the clean out. Winning is always harder work than losing.
However, the reward from this relentless drive for excellence and the work that goes with it, is that it frees a team from the boredom of going through the motions and hoping. It saves a team from the vices of sloth and narcissism because work is both energising and humbling. And most of all, it frees a team from any need of approval or validation from anyone but itself, because when the work has been carried out as well and as hard as possible, the result need not be agonised over.
If we lost, nothing more could have been done. If we won, it is nothing more than we deserve.
This is exactly the attitude that can win a team a Test at Eden Park, because a team of hard workers is difficult to overcome. When faced with a hard-working team, the only choice is to work even harder than them. Luck and freakish talent may win occasionally, but it is rare.
In recent times the All Blacks have had plenty of skilled players, but more than that they’ve had plenty of skilled players prepared to work hard. Last week, and for one Test at least, the hardest working team in world rugby got out-worked.
Unfortunately for the Wallabies, work is never ending.
Back to our friend Voltaire. The flipside of his trio – boredom, vice and need – perhaps are thrills, honour and inner peace. Few fans will argue that the Wallabies achieved these last week. Only time will tell whether they have a consistent appetite.